Europe's six surprise islands

Europe’s most popular holiday islands draw major tourist crowds to its well-known charms - everyone knows Ibiza as Party Central - but with a bit of insider info, you can hit these islands and manage to have that castaway, lush-mountains-and-entire-beaches-to-yourself  kind of holiday. A real island getaway.

Lonely Planet Magazine lets you in on the secret and explains why it might be time to reconsider these destinations again.

Island 1: Ibiza

The charge: Ibiza’s populace of 11,000 bulges with four million tourists each year, its towns taken over by ravers and fashion victims and the beaches littered with hungover clubbers passed out on Union Jack towels.

The defence: The Greeks called Ibiza the Isla Pitiusas (Island of Pine Trees). About half the island – especially the fairly unspoilt northeast – remains covered by forest. Indeed, driving around the back roads of the north is to plunge into a rural idyll of thick woods broken by almond trees and fig groves. The coastal hills and inland mountains are popular with hikers and cyclists looking for solitude away from the yoga retreats and dreadlocked bongo-players of the northern beaches. While Ibiza Town is home to most of the island’s clubs, it retains a Unesco-listed old town and its portside location means that the seafood practically leaps from sea to plate in its many upmarket restaurants. Elsewhere on the island, coastal walking trails and quiet (if not deserted) beaches allow you to elude Ministry of Sound style madness.

Island 2: Mallorca

The charge: The Brits have arrived! Millions of them, swarming over the island in search of sun, sea and sex. High-rise hotels have sprung up to accommodate them with the locals and their culture pushed out.

The defence: High-rise tourist development, you say? You don’t see much of that in the medieval centre of Palma. The old quarter oozes history in its twisting lanes, tree-lined boulevards, Gothic churches and baroque palaces. Away from the city and the holiday compounds, the island has a varied and captivating beauty. Along the jagged cliffs of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range sits a string of compact villages each with its own pebble beach. To the north of the island, the rugged topography gives way to a sloping plane around Sóller. Known as the Vall d’Or (golden valley), the area is crammed with sweet-smelling citrus orchards. The tacky resorts lining the south coast could belong to another planet, another century.

Island 3: Lanzarote

The chargeLanzarote is nothing but a big holiday camp, utterly devoid of character, beauty or any sense of national identity. And what is there to do there? Fight for a sun bed in the rows stacked four deep on the beach, and drink.

The defence: Known colloquially as the Isla de los Volcanes, Lanzarote is peppered with a mindboggling 300 volcanic cones – despite measuring a mere 40 miles from north to south and 13 miles east to west. Its largely volcanic terrain is captivating and unique, its beauty stark, weird, intriguing. Driving across arid, ash-strewn plains, you’ll think you’ve landed on the moon; at other times, trundling through the national parks of the interior, you’ll wonder if you’re in Africa or Hawaii. Unesco declared the entire island a biosphere reserve in 1993, meaning any development is balanced against the need to preserve the island’s heritage and environment. As such, tourist resorts are low key and easy to escape. It’s western Lanzarote that springs the biggest surprise of all – a thriving viniculture. Local wine growers have found the deep, black, lava soil, enriched by the island’s shaky seismic history, perfect for the grape. Take the LZ-30 road through La Geria wine region and don’t go home without a bottle of malvasía from a roadside bodega.

Island 4: Rhodes

The charge: Brash and bold, Rhodes is the holiday destination for the average football hooligan and his family. And there’s no escaping them – tourism has saturated the whole island.

The defence: Yes, Rhodes is big, brash and bold, but the operative word is ‘big’ – it’s easy to get away from resorts like Faliraki and feel like you’re the only person to have discovered the island. If you’re not taken in by its World Heritage listed Old Town with its labyrinthine streets and medieval fortifications, you will be by its deserted beaches, snaking mountain roads and wild interior. Heading east, you’ll find Rhodes’ best beaches, including the idyllic sandy cove of Agathi, watched over by the ruins of a 15th-century castle and prison. The largely agricultural land makes for great walking, particularly in the beautiful, shady valley around the Epta Piges (Seven Springs). Western Rhodes is exposed to winds whipping in from the sea and feels that bit wilder. Here you’ll find the extensive ruins of Ancient Kamiros, a Doric city known for its figs, oils and wine, that reached the height of its powers in the sixth century BC.

Island 5: Cyprus

The charge: Stepping off the plane, you’ll feel that you’ve arrived at some over-developed Essex suburb swarming with orange-tinged Brits itching for a fight after their 10th pint of happy hour Carling. It’s ‘Brits abroad’ at their worst.

The defence: Floating on the waters of the European Mediterranean, but pointing towards the shores of Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, Cyprus is a kaleidoscopic blend: its cultural influences look towards Western Europe but its geographical proximity to Africa and Asia give it more than a hint of the exotic. Away from the cultural anomalies of Lemesos, Agia Napa and Pafos, you’ll find an island that has a very definite and beguiling character. The western region is particularly wild and romantic, here you’ll find remote beaches such as Lara Beach, cupped by a lime-rock bay, and villages with winding streets, fig trees and moustached men sitting chewing the fat outside the local coffee shop.

Island 6: Crete

The charge: In the 40 years since Brits first discovered Crete, its character has been beaten out of it by the onslaught of mass tourism. All that’s left is an endless strip of hotels, souvenir shops and mini-markets.

The defence: A land of myth and legend and history, Crete is the birthplace of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. It’s still easy enough to escape the crowds and find the tranquillity to absorb its stories. Its natural appeal (mountain ranges sliced by gorges, hillsides blanketed in citrus groves and herbs) is equalled only by the richness of a culture that spans millennia. Stretching west, Rethymno town is one of the island’s architectural treasures, with a stunning fortress and mix of Venetian and Ottoman houses in the mazey back streets of the old quarter. The Cretans may have succumbed to tourism on a grand scale, but they’re still protective of their traditions and maintain an attachment to the songs and dances that have forged their identity. That sense of national pride forms a major part of the island’s appeal.


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